The regular conference meetings of the Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives, held most weeks behind closed doors in the Capitol Visitor Center, tend to be predictable and thus irregularly attended affairs. The party leaders — the House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, the minority whip Steve Scalise and the conference chairwoman Liz Cheney, whose job it is to run these meetings — typically begin with a few housekeeping matters and then proceed with a discussion of the party’s message or issue du jour. The conference’s more voluble members line up at the microphone to opine for one to two minutes at a time; the rare newsworthy comment is often leaked and memorialized on Twitter seconds after it is uttered. An hour or so later, the members file out into the corridors of the Capitol and back to their offices, a few of them lingering to talk to reporters.
The conference meeting on the afternoon of Feb. 3 was different in nearly every way. It lasted four hours and nearly all of the G.O.P.’s 210 House members attended. Its stated purpose was to decide whether to remove Cheney from her leadership position.
Three weeks earlier, Cheney announced that she would vote to impeach President Donald Trump over his encouragement of his supporters’ storming the Capitol on Jan. 6 — one of only 10 House Republicans to do so and the only member of the party’s leadership. Because her colleagues had elected Cheney to the party’s third-highest position in the House, her words were generally seen as expressing the will of the conference, and those words had been extremely clear: “There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution,” she said.
The combination of her stature and her unequivocal stand amounted to a clear message from Cheney to House Republicans: If they sided with Trump in challenging the election, they were siding against the Constitution, and against at least one of their elected leaders. The tenor of the Feb. 3 meeting was therefore tense, portentous and deeply personal from beginning to end, according to several attendees who later described it to me.
When it was Cheney’s turn to speak, the 54-year-old Wyoming congresswoman began by describing her lifelong reverence for the House, where her father, Dick Cheney, was minority whip more than 30 years ago before serving as George H.W. Bush’s secretary of defense and George W. Bush’s vice president. But, Cheney went on, she was “deeply, deeply concerned about where our party is headed.” Its core principles — limited government, low taxes, a strong national defense — were being overshadowed by darker forces. “We cannot become the party of QAnon,” she said. “We cannot become the party of Holocaust denial. We cannot become the party of white supremacy. We all watched in horror what happened on Jan. 6.”
Cheney, alone among House Republicans, had been mentioned by Trump in his speech that day. “The Liz Cheneys of the world, we got to get rid of them,” he told his supporters at the Ellipse shortly before they overran the Capitol. The president had been infuriated by Cheney’s public insistence that Trump’s court challenges to state election results were unpersuasive and that he needed to respect “the sanctity of our electoral process.” At the time of Trump’s speech, Cheney was in the House cloakroom awaiting the ritual state-by-state tabulation of electoral votes. Her father called her to inform her of Trump’s remark. Less than an hour later, a mob was banging against the doors of the House chamber.
In the conference meeting, Cheney said that she stood by her vote to impeach Trump. Several members had asked her to apologize, but, she said, “I cannot do that.”
The line to the microphone was extraordinarily long. At least half of the speakers indicated that they would vote to remove Cheney. Ralph Norman of South Carolina expressed disappointment in her vote. “But the other thing that bothers me, Liz,” he went on, “is your attitude. You’ve got a defiant attitude.” John Rutherford of Florida, a former sheriff, accused the chairwoman of not being a “team player.”
Others argued that her announcement a day before the impeachment vote had given the Democrats a talking point to use against the rest of the Republican conference. (“Good for her for honoring her oath of office,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointedly remarked when told of Cheney’s intentions.) Likening the situation to a football game, Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania lamented, “You look up into the stands and see your girlfriend on the opposition’s side — that’s one hell of a tough thing to swallow.”
“She’s not your girlfriend!” a female colleague yelled out. Kelly’s remark was immediately disseminated among Republican women in professional Washington, according to Barbara Comstock, who served as a Republican congresswoman from Virginia until 2019. “We emailed that around, just horrified, commenting in real time,” she told me.
Throughout it all, Cheney sat implacably — “as emotional as algebra,” as one attendee later told me. She spoke only when asked a direct question. But when McCarthy concluded by suggesting that they put this matter behind them and adjourn, Cheney insisted that the conference vote on her status right then and there. The members cast their secret ballots, and Cheney prevailed, 145 to 61.
The lopsided margin was almost identical to Cheney’s own whip count going into the conference. Individual colleagues had confided in her that most of the conference was only too happy to move on from Trump — but saying so in public was another matter. To do so meant risking defeat at the hands of a Trump-adoring Republican primary electorate or even, many of them feared, the well-being of their families. In sum, it risked getting the Liz Cheney treatment. That Cheney was willing to face Trump’s wrath called attention to the fact that most of them were not — a factor in the aggrievement directed at Cheney in the meeting. Lloyd Smucker of Pennsylvania said that Cheney had “a low E.Q.,” or emotional quotient. On his way out the door, one congressman remarked, “I just got to spend four hours listening to a bunch of men complain to a woman that she doesn’t take their emotions into account.”
To the one-third of the conference who wanted her removed from the leadership position, Cheney offered no gesture of appeasement. Standing outside the Visitor Center conference room, Cheney described the vote to reporters as “a very resounding acknowledgment that we can move forward together.” But this was true in only the most limited sense. A clear fracture in the G.O.P. — between those who continued to view Trump as the party leader and those, now led by Cheney, who wanted to move past him and his presidency — went unaddressed. As for Cheney, who had until recently been viewed as a potential rival of McCarthy for the title of House party leader, her standing, and with it her career, was far from a settled matter.
“The conference voted to keep Liz in that position because we’ve got bigger fish to fry — fighting the Democrats, winning the next election — and this is a distraction from all that,” Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, who voted against Cheney in the meeting, later told me. But, he added, “I think there’s a huge disconnect with Liz and some others in the conference and the American people. She did have a conservative record. But then she became almost a Never Trumper. And I’ve been disappointed in her lack of humility. It’s struck a lot of people as not only odd, but just as — wow.”
Liz Cheney became a federal officeholder at the same time Donald Trump did, in January 2017. In the wishful thinking of Republican leaders, her election seemed to offer a model for how the forces that Trump represented might be safely, and profitably, assimilated into the Republican establishment. The two of them were elected on similar platforms: anti-Obamacare, anti-environmental regulation, anti-gun control, anti-apologizing for protecting American interests around the world. During her 2016 campaign, Cheney described Hillary Clinton as a “felon” on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and, in response to the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump bragged about groping women, she said in a statement to a Wyoming radio station, “Hillary’s actions have been far worse.”
For his part, Trump appeared to understand Cheney’s stature within the Republican hierarchy. Her party connections extended across generations. She could pick up the phone and call current and former foreign leaders from around the world, particularly in the Middle East. She seemed, on occasion, a human link between the legacy of the last Republican administration and Trump’s own, despite their mutual lack of chumminess. Five days into Trump’s presidency, the congresswoman expressed her enthusiastic approval when Trump floated the possibility of bringing back waterboarding as an interrogation technique. Cheney later praised Trump for having issued a pardon to her father’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby. Cheney criticized Trump’s policies publicly on occasion but with discretion, and Trump rarely fired back.
All that changed when Cheney stood alone among House Republican leaders in refusing to humor Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Trump won 70 percent of the vote in Wyoming in 2020, his highest share in any state. In Carbon County, the local party chairman, Joey Correnti IV, immediately convened two town halls to take the local temperature. “A few folks kind of let loose for a bit” over Cheney’s impeachment vote, he told me. “Talking about tar-and-feathering, riding her out on a rail. That kind of stuff.”
Correnti drafted a resolution of censure — one of several against pro-impeachment lawmakers by Republican state committees in various states — that would soon be adopted by the entire state party. In it, the Wyoming G.O.P. called for her immediate resignation and asserted that Cheney had “violated the trust of her voters.” Several politicians announced their intentions to challenge her in the 2022 Republican primary. On Jan. 29, one of Cheney’s G.O.P. House colleagues, Matt Gaetz, the Florida congressman and performative Trump ally, appeared on the State Capitol steps in Cheyenne, where he pronounced Cheney “a fake cowgirl” before posing for fan photos. (Gaetz had been invited by a 27-year-old freshman Wyoming state representative and food-truck entrepreneur, Ocean Andrew, a protégé of Rand Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky, whose distaste for the Cheneys dates back to the Iraq war.)
On one level, this was a now-familiar story of Trump’s presidency and its aftermath: A Republican lawmaker, finally pushed over the line by one or another of Trump’s actions, publicly breaks with him, only to see years’ worth of alliances, friendships and ideological credibility evaporate overnight. But Cheney was not a backbencher, and she was not only standing on principle.
According to sources who are familiar with Cheney’s views, she believes the G.O.P. has been manifestly weakened by Trump. The party now controls neither the executive nor the legislative branch. Twice in a row, Trump lost the popular vote by significant margins, exacerbating a worrisome trend for Republicans that has extended across five of the last six presidential elections. Given all this, Trump’s conduct in egging on the rioters presented his party with a political opportunity. By impeaching him, they could wash their hands of Trump and then resume the challenge of winning back majorities of the voting public.
Cheney declined to speak to me on the record for this article, as did many other congressional Republicans. To defend Cheney is to invite the wrath of Trump and his base, while for those members who remain Trump loyalists, interaction of any sort with “fake news media” is increasingly to be avoided. But I was able to listen in on Cheney’s remarks at a virtual fund-raiser for her on Feb. 8, hosted by more than 50 veteran lobbyists who had each contributed to her political action committee. At the event, Cheney lamented the party’s drift away from reality, the extent to which it had become wedded to conspiracy theories. The party’s core voters, she said, “were misled into believing the election was stolen and were betrayed.” Alongside a legitimate concern over a Biden administration’s priorities was “the idea that the election somehow wasn’t over, and that somehow Jan. 6 would change things. People really believed it.”
When one lobbyist raised the specter of Trump re-emerging as the G.O.P.’s dominant force, Cheney responded that the party would have to resist this. Citing the Capitol riot, she said, “In my view, we can’t go down the path of embracing the person who did this or excuse what happened.” She added: “We really can’t become the party of a cult of personality. It’s a really scary phenomenon we haven’t seen in this country before. Our oath and our loyalty is to the Constitution, not to an individual — particularly after what happened on Jan. 6.” This month, she told Fox News that she would not endorse Trump if he ran again in 2024.
The House G.O.P.’s other two leaders, McCarthy and Scalise, do not subscribe to this view. Before Jan. 6, each man had strongly implied that the November election was rife with serious irregularities while dancing around Trump’s brazen claim that it had been stolen outright. Both of them, like many others in their conference, criticized Trump’s behavior on Jan. 6 while stopping short of describing it as impeachable.
And both McCarthy and Scalise, according to associates familiar with their thinking, are of the view that the task of winning back the House next year is likelier to occur if the party’s relationship with Trump is harmonious. The same day Gaetz strutted into Cheyenne, McCarthy went to see Trump at Mar-a-Lago. The widely circulated photo of the two men standing and smiling together at the resort suggested that a path had been chosen for the party, and it was not Cheney’s.
Still, many establishment Republicans have rallied around Cheney. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, publicly congratulated her on surviving the conference vote. “Liz’s primary is absolutely the most symbolic race in the country right now,” said Julie Conway, the executive director of the Republican women’s political action committee VIEW PAC. “She’s the proverbial canary in the coal mine. I mean, is the party ready to get back to principled leaders with substance and a moral compass? Or have we become a party that sees Congress as a source of entertainment and intellectual cotton candy?”
Conway’s group hosted a virtual fund-raiser for Cheney just two hours before the Feb. 3 conference meeting. Its nearly 40 co-hosts included former Republican members of Congress — Comstock, Phil English and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — as well as alumni from the George W. Bush administration and prominent Washington lobbyists. Some of them cried as they talked about what the party had become under Trump. “It was like the biggest therapy session I’d ever been a part of,” said one of the hosts I spoke with later. Another host, the former Bush solicitor general Ted Olson, told me, “I’m very concerned about the direction the party’s being taken by — I hate to use the word ‘leadership,’ because outside of the courage Liz has shown, I’m not sure how you’d even define that term.”
On Feb. 28, Trump gave the first speech of his post-presidency, at the annual CPAC convention in Orlando. After rattling off all the names of the seven Republican senators who had recently voted to convict him, along with the nine rank-and-file G.O.P. House members who had voted to impeach, the ex-president bore down on his primary target. “And of course, the warmonger, a person that loves seeing our troops fighting, Liz Cheney,” Trump declared to lavish boos. “How about that? The good news is in her state, she’s been censured, and in her state, her poll numbers have dropped faster than any human being I’ve ever seen. So hopefully they’ll get rid of her with the next election.”
Though Cheney grew up in proximity to power, it wasn’t preordained that she would seek it herself. Raised in Wyoming and the Washington suburb of McLean, Va., she was a high school cheerleader and a babysitter of neighborhood kids. After graduating from Colorado College — the alma mater of her mother, Lynne Cheney — in 1988 she worked for USAID in Poland, Hungary and China before going to work on privatization efforts in the former Soviet Union at the State Department under Richard Armitage, who had served with her father at the Pentagon during the George H.W. Bush administration.
Eight years later, when George W. Bush picked the elder Cheney as his running mate, Liz was put in charge of his debate preparation. “Liz didn’t hesitate to bust her dad’s chops,” said the Republican consultant and author Stuart Stevens, who assisted in the debate prep sessions at Dick Cheney’s home outside the resort town Jackson Hole. “We did these formal run-throughs where the Cheney women would grill him on his past record. ‘You voted against Martin Luther King Day — I mean, really, Dad? Really?’ It was clear that he was in this matriarchy.”
Under the new administration, Liz Cheney went back to work at the State Department for Armitage, who had been named Colin Powell’s deputy secretary of state. Cheney reported directly to the assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, Bill Burns, who is now Biden’s C.I.A. director. Though Powell’s department and her father’s Office of the Vice President bitterly clashed over the decision to invade Iraq and other foreign-policy matters, Armitage recalled Liz Cheney as being “mission-oriented” and did not question her loyalty.
‘A few folks kind of let loose for a bit, talking about tar-and-feathering, riding her out on a rail.’
The criticisms over the Iraq war in general, and her father’s role in particular, seemed to colleagues to intensify Liz Cheney’s hawkishness. She co-wrote the former vice president’s distinctly unapologetic 2011 memoir, “In My Time,” and during Barack Obama’s presidency she appeared frequently on cable news and the Sunday shows to defend Bush’s belated troop surge as a success while excoriating Obama’s subsequent drawdown from Iraq. As a pundit, she developed an on-air persona that suggested a more energetic and cutting version of her father’s plain-faced certitude.
By 2012, she and her husband, Phil Perry, were co-hosting House G.O.P. fund-raisers with her father in Jackson Hole — a clear-enough indicator of her own political aspirations. Her first campaign, an attempt to unseat the longtime Wyoming Republican senator Mike Enzi in 2014, was a bust, viewed even among her allies as a case of overshooting. Two years later, Cheney announced that she would run for the state’s lone House seat, soon to be vacated by the Republican Cynthia Lummis.
Undaunted by accusations of carpetbagging, she leaned heavily on her family’s roots and Rolodex. She assured the state’s fossil-fuel industry that there was one war she did in fact stand against: Obama’s so-called war on coal. She vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act and enact tort reform in its place. She labeled the Obama administration’s Common Core educational initiative a case of “big government interference” and promised to shred it. Most notably, she opposed same-sex marriage, despite the fact that her sister, Mary, was married to a woman.
Cheney’s stridency on same-sex marriage, while infuriating her sister, also marked a rare difference in views from their father, whose support for the rights of gay couples stretched back over a decade. “To be for civil unions as a Republican in 2000,” as Cheney was, “was arguably disqualifying,” Stevens told me. “And Cheney made a big point of disclosing it to Bush. ‘This is what I believe, and I’m not going to change.’ And he didn’t care if that meant he wasn’t on the ticket.”
Stevens added, “I think you can draw a direct line from what Dick Cheney said then to what Liz Cheney’s doing now.”
The first sign of unresolvable differences between Cheney and Trump occurred over foreign policy. At a meeting in the Oval Office in December 2018, Cheney and other Republican members of Congress tried to dissuade President Trump from his plan to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and Syria. A recurring theme in the “America First” platform on which Trump campaigned, and one of the few consistent themes in his foreign-policy views over the years, was that America had been mired in “endless wars” without adequate assistance from allies. These allies, he charged, also failed to pay their full NATO dues and in other ways played his presidential predecessors for suckers.
Cheney believed with similar conviction that an American military presence in places like Afghanistan was necessary to combat terrorism. And from the beginning of Trump’s presidency, she had similarly objected to Trump’s apparent favoritism of Vladimir Putin over America’s NATO allies. Putting her objections in terms that she believed Trump would understand, she said to him in the White House: “I thought it was wrong for Barack Obama to withdraw troops for political reasons. And I think it would be wrong for you to do the same thing here.”
Cheney was a member of the House Armed Services Committee who was seen by her colleagues as possessing an advanced political acumen, so much so that she was elected as the House G.O.P.’s conference chair at the end of 2018 despite having served only a single term. Such positions would, during previous presidencies, have given her standing to weigh in on matters like troop deployments. And to the extent that Republicans on the Hill did voice opposition to Trump, foreign policy was usually the safest ground on which to do so, because the president’s supporters tended not to get riled up over NATO contributions.
Still, Cheney’s willingness to speak in such stern terms to Trump’s face contrasted sharply with the deference most of her colleagues showed to him. “In past Republican administrations, it was OK to speak up and disagree on things,” the former congresswoman Barbara Comstock told me. “That was Liz’s experience. These new ideologues, that’s not what they did. If you spoke up at the White House, they’d look at you like you were crazy. Trump would show up at conferences and point to different members and tell them how great they were on TV, and then they’d hang out at the White House.”
Cheney remained enough of a Trump ally to lead the House G.O.P.’s messaging fight against Pelosi’s Democrats over the first impeachment of Trump for pressuring the new president of Ukraine to investigate Trump’s likely opponent in the presidential election, Joe Biden. She chided the Democrats for rushing the vote. “It’s a system and a process like we’ve never seen before, and it’s really disgraceful,” Cheney said during one TV appearance. Voting to impeach Trump under such circumstances “may permanently damage our republic,” she warned on the House floor.
Even at the time, however, a distancing was palpable. Cheney conspicuously refrained from commenting on, much less explaining away or endorsing, Trump’s strong-arming efforts. She publicly criticized as “shameful” Republicans’ questioning the patriotism of Alexander Vindman, the Army officer and National Security Council staff member who testified in the inquiry.
Still, it took the coronavirus pandemic to make permanent the gulf between Trump and Cheney. According to sources familiar with her thinking, it was not the president’s wholesale failure of empathy that she found wanting, but instead his rejection of science. The president’s cavalier prediction in February, that the virus was an ethereal blip that would pass “like a miracle,” disturbed her. Cheney’s father had suffered multiple heart attacks and was therefore at high risk if he contracted the virus. For this reason, she was a no-show at the House G.O.P.’s leadership meeting at St. Michaels, Md., in early March 2020.
On May 12 of last year, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, incurred the wrath of Trump supporters by stating that the coronavirus would not simply “disappear” in the next few months as Trump had promised. Cheney publicly defended Fauci, tweeting that he was “one of the finest public servants we have ever had.” That was among the transgressions cited in a July virtual conference by members of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, including Jim Jordan and Andy Biggs, as evidence that Cheney was out of step with the party. Their insistence on defending Trump’s obvious dereliction struck Cheney as further evidence that the Republican Party was in danger of losing its moorings.
During a news conference on Sept. 23, Trump was asked if he would commit to a peaceful transition should Biden win the election. “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens,” he replied, adding that “I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster.” In response, Cheney tweeted the next day: “The peaceful transfer of power is enshrined in our Constitution and fundamental to the survival of our Republic. America’s leaders swear an oath to the Constitution. We will uphold that oath.”
By “we,” the chairwoman seemed to be speaking for her entire conference — or more accurately speaking to them, stating in tersely Cheney-esque fashion that failing to follow her lead would place the republic in danger. Indeed, by this juncture only the most Pollyanna-ish of Republicans could fail to see that Trump would never concede defeat. His most zealous supporters joined him in forecasting a “rigged election”; others simply tried to dodge the implications for as long as possible.
McCarthy, the minority leader, fell in the latter category. The day that Cheney tweeted her commitment to a peaceful transfer of power, McCarthy asserted during a briefing that the Democrats were likeliest to contest the outcome, adding, “There will be a smooth transition, and I believe President Trump will have a very good inaugural.”
In December, well after the election results had clearly established Biden as the winner, numerous Republican elected officials refused to accept the outcome and began showing up at “Stop the Steal” rallies in swing states that went for Biden. Cheney produced a 21-page memo rebutting the “Stop the Steal” claims state by state and disseminated it on Jan. 3, hoping that it would sway fellow House Republicans to put the election and Trump behind them.
It did not. On the evening of Jan. 6, hours after members of Congress had been ushered back into the House chamber under heavy security following the storming of the Capitol, Cheney voted to certify the election results. But the balance within the party had tilted far the other way. Newly elected members like Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina (who spoke at the Trump rally that morning) and Lauren Boebert of Colorado (who tweeted that morning, “Today is 1776”) had joined Freedom Caucus members like Jordan and Paul Gosar of Arizona in loudly contesting the results. Nearly two-thirds of the House Republicans voted to overturn them in at least one state.
The censure passed by the central committee of the Wyoming Republican Party after Cheney’s impeachment vote, three weeks later, included a request that the congresswoman meet with the committee and explain her apostasies. Cheney did not. “She’s basically taken the attitude that the Republican Party isn’t something she needs to interact with,” Karl Allred, one of the committee members, told me. “I really hate that attitude.”
The State Capitol building in Cheyenne opened in 1888, two years before Wyoming became America’s 44th state. It is ornate if strikingly pint-size, its walls covered with framed photos of bearded white throwbacks from a Wild West yesteryear. When I arrived there on a snowy morning in late March, the legislative session was reaching a fever pitch.
Wyoming politics tend conservative and libertarian, shot through with an independent streak owed in large part to the state’s longstanding disgruntlement with the federal government’s influence there, which is extensive even by the standards of Western states. Nearly half of Wyoming’s land is federally owned, as are two-thirds of the mineral reserves that underwrite the state’s largest industry, energy production.
Wyoming’s coal production exceeds that of any other state. But domestic demand for the fuel has been cut by more than a third over the past decade, primarily because of the cheap natural gas yielded from fracking. The shipping ports and rail lines that might send the coal to markets elsewhere are in blue states like Washington, Oregon and California, where climate-conscious lawmakers have passed laws banning coal transportation. To protect its hobbled industry, Wyoming legislators have attempted not-entirely-conservative measures like taxing solar facilities and further regulating wind farms.
All of this made the state particularly susceptible to Trump and the right-wing politics that have outlasted his presidency. The Republican Party has dominated Wyoming politics so thoroughly for so long that liberal policy victories are basically unheard of, so it was peculiar to find a legislative agenda crowded with measures tilting against a cultural and political moment that did not seem likely to arrive in Cheyenne anytime soon. One education bill, advanced by the Republican representative Jeremy Haroldson, would, as he described it, promote the view that “slavery was not maybe what it has been painted in the nation, completely.” A bill co-sponsored by a state senator and septic-pumping serviceman named Anthony Bouchard would allow the state’s conceal-carry gun permit to include out-of-state residents, though there had been no particular public outcry for such an extension.
Bouchard was the first politician to announce his intention to challenge Cheney in the 2022 Republican primary. Another primary opponent, the state representative and conservative radio talk-show host Chuck Gray, happened to be speaking on the floor when I arrived in the chamber. Gray had introduced a statewide voter-ID bill, which passed the House and would later be signed into law despite the lack of evidence of its necessity (even the conservative Heritage Foundation has found only three isolated instances of individuals voting fraudulently in the state over the past two decades) or even strategic value (Republican candidates in the state rarely face serious challenges from Democrats).
But the most noteworthy bill to be debated on the floor that day was a measure that would require a runoff in Wyoming primary elections if the top vote-getter failed to receive 50 percent. The bill, introduced by Senator Bo Biteman, was transparently clear in its purpose: to make it harder for Liz Cheney to prevail in 2022 over a crowded field splitting the anti-Cheney vote.
Donald Trump Jr. and President Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski had both commented positively on the bill, and Trump Jr. had been rumored among Wyoming Republicans as a possible Cheney challenger himself. Other exotic possibilities included the Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who owns a home in Wyoming, and the Rockefeller heiress and Florida socialite Catharine O’Neill, a columnist for the far-right online publication Newsmax and the daughter of a Trump donor, who filed paperwork in January suggesting her intentions to run in the state.
As for Gray and Bouchard, “They’re probably dead in the water if the bill goes down,” Landon Brown, a Republican state representative from Cheyenne, told me in an office adjacent to the House floor. Hours later, the legislation did indeed fail to pass. Nevertheless, Brown said, Cheney is hardly a lock to win next year. “People like my parents, who loved all the Cheneys but are die-hard Trump supporters, will never vote for her again,” he said. “They can’t stand her.”
“I love Donald Trump,” said Joey Correnti, the author of the original Cheney censure resolution, who told me that he went to considerable effort to have both his post-office box and the last four digits of his cellphone consist of the number 1776. “When he stood on that stage of 17 Republican candidates, I knew then that he’d be the only one who could drag America kicking and screaming through all the growing pains it needed to get to where we are now.”
Still, Correnti acknowledged, Trump loyalty alone would not defeat Cheney. “Whoever does become the prime challenger to Cheney is going to have a hard, expensive road ahead,” he said. “So hopefully the people of Wyoming and Trump can come to an agreement.” Trump announced in a recent statement that he would soon be making an endorsement in the primary and warned against the risk of a crowded field, noting that “so many people are looking to run against Crazy Liz Cheney — but we only want one.” Already, Bouchard was angling to be Trump’s anointed candidate, posting MAGA sentiments on his Twitter page while describing Cheney in campaign emails as “DC Swamp Royalty.”
The national party has affected a posture of studied neutrality on the prospect of a Republican leader being primaried by a Trump-endorsed opponent. The National Republican Congressional Committee “does not get involved in primaries,” Michael McAdams, the organization’s communications director, told me. But others in the party are rallying to Cheney’s defense. Adam Kinzinger, the Illinois Republican congressman and frequent Trump critic who also voted for impeachment, recently started a political action committee of his own, Country First, that aims to support anti-Trump Republicans like Cheney. “She just has to get through this moment,” Kinzinger said. “Look, this whole cancel culture of the right, it’s about people who feel threatened because they look bad when someone like Liz is strong and actually stands for what she believes. I think she’ll survive.”
Still, simply surviving as Wyoming’s lone congresswoman was not what anyone would have anticipated even a couple of years ago for Dick Cheney’s daughter. While reporting this article, it was jarring to recall all the expectations from the G.O.P. establishment and the Beltway press that attended her in her first days in the Capitol: the party’s first female House speaker or even its first female vice president or president. Almost no one I spoke with voiced such hopes for her today.
One of her friends who served with her in the Bush administration, who asked not to be named while speaking candidly of his party’s internal dynamics, told me that he urged her to run last year for the seat that Mike Enzi was retiring from in the Senate, where Trump loyalty was less maniacally enforced. “I said to her, ‘You’ve got to run for the Senate — the House is becoming a terrible place,’” the friend recalled. “And that was well before all the impeachment stuff.” After Cheney’s vote, “there’s this cohort of House Republicans that can’t not attack her.”
“Maybe that will subside and the Trump effect will wear off,” the friend went on. “But the history of politics doesn’t consist of two-year periods. These movements last 10 or 15 years. And that’s your whole career.”
On a sunny Thursday morning in March, Cheney convened a news conference on the section of the eastern lawn of the Capitol complex known as the Triangle. She and about 30 other House Republicans, including McCarthy and Scalise, were there to discuss what a cardboard prop called “Biden’s Border Crisis.”
Given the popularity of Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid stimulus bill and the continued progress of the vaccine rollouts, the Republicans were eager to change the subject. They were also eager to project a unity of purpose, to voice agreement on something — to be a whole and somewhat normal party again. Peter Meijer of Michigan and John Katko of New York, two of the other Republican members who had voted to impeach Trump, were in attendance.
The event consisted of a succession of minute-long condemnations of the new president and his failure to stem the flow of the hundred thousand migrants who had shown up at the U.S.’s Southern border in the month of February alone. Cheney’s turn at the microphone came after McCarthy and Scalise. Even though she said little, her brisk and determinedly unflamboyant delivery harked back to her performances a decade ago, during Obama’s presidency, as an imperturbable Sunday-show critic of a Democratic administration. Even more notable was the fact that everyone at the Triangle sounded like one another, reciting the same talking points, suggesting that she and her colleague-antagonists were at last on the same page.
Or so it appeared until about 24 hours later, when Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene decided that it was time to weigh in. The Georgia freshman and Trump acolyte now had considerable time on her hands after a House majority — including 11 Republicans, though not Cheney — voted to strip her of her committee assignments on account of her conspiratorial and violence-espousing social media presence before taking office. Now she was introducing her Protect America First Act, which would enforce a four-year moratorium on all immigration and complete Trump’s unfinished border wall, which would be named in his honor.
The bill was destined to go nowhere, but in its transparent effort to flatter Trump and further the policies most symbolically associated with him, it was a reminder of how closely he hovered over the party, regardless of Cheney’s attempts to sideline him. Greene’s defiance of Cheney’s attempt at party unity also served as a reminder of the numerous Republican lawmakers who had not been there with Cheney at the Triangle. The absent included not just reliable detractors like Gaetz — who, it would soon be reported, had come under federal investigation for sex-trafficking allegations, which he has denied — and Greene but also colleagues like Dan Crenshaw of Texas and Nancy Mace of South Carolina, who had both publicly defended Cheney not long before. Cheney was now a polarizing brand of her own. To stand beside her was tantamount to standing with her, which in turn meant standing against the dominant force in Republican politics.
A conservative lobbyist told me of calls she received from others in her profession who supported Cheney but feared the consequences of attaching their name to a fund-raising event for her. A number of her prominent past supporters in Wyoming did not seem eager to invite renewed local wrath by discussing Cheney with me.
In Cheyenne, I went to see Matt Micheli, a 45-year-old lawyer who served as Wyoming’s Republican Party chairman in 2016. “I think she views what’s happening now as a fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” he told me of Cheney. “It really is a battle between the traditional Reagan-style conservative and the performative politics of the Matt Gaetz wing of the party. And if she succeeds, she’s positioned to be the leader of that post-Trump party.”
The hesitant tone in Micheli’s voice suggested that a “but” was coming. “We’ve redefined what it means to be conservative,” he continued ruefully. “I could go through issue by issue, and I guarantee you I’d be more conservative than you on every single one of them. But that doesn’t matter anymore, right? It’s all about being angry and obnoxious and demonstrating how loyal you are to Donald Trump.”
Micheli chose not to run for re-election for the party chairmanship in 2017, in part because he did not wish to pretend to be a Trump cheerleader. “What would happen if you ran for state party chair today?” I asked.
He answered immediately. “If I wouldn’t endorse the conspiracy theories that have overtaken so much of my party, which I won’t,” he said, “I’d get crushed.”
Robert Draper is a writer at large for the magazine. He is the author of several books, most recently, “To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq,” which was excerpted in the magazine. Clay Rodery is a freelance illustrator and figurative artist in Brooklyn. He currently teaches illustration at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
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